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Women in the Gospels: Witnesses and Evangelists

October 1, 2012
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Christianity is built upon the testimony of women.  The first evidence of Christianity’s central mystery, that Christ died and then came back to life, is the testimony of women.  Hopefully this does not sound like a small thing as is but I’d like to emphasize what a big deal this is.  What important tasks could a human do while Jesus was on earth?  I can think of five (and yes, I intend for this to be an exhaustive list): observe, understand, believe, obey, and tell.  There is some overlap in these categories but I cannot think of anything that would fall outside of these boundaries.  Three of these tasks are important for the believer’s own growth: understanding, believing, and obeying.  (Somewhat ironically for our current church life believing and obeying are clearly more important than understanding since understanding seems to have come quite late to just about everyone involved in the gospel stories.)  However, none of these would be possible without people who observed and told.  Being a witness is a big deal.

So who are the witnesses?  Matthew (27-28) tells us that many women saw Jesus’ crucifixion including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the unnamed mother of James and John (Matthew says “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” but that’s pretty convoluted so we’ll just say the mother of James and John).  He then says that when Jesus is put in the tomb both Marys are sitting across from the tomb watching all of this.  Finally, those same two Marys visit the tomb on the third day.  Matthew’s narrative also includes another woman: Pilate’s wife sends a message to Pilate telling him not to do anything to Jesus because of a dream she has had.  However, this is not of great consequence for our purposes.

Mark (15-16) tells us almost exactly the same story except that he mentions Salome in place of the mother of James and John (unless she is the same person) and mentions her presence at the empty tomb.  Mark also tells us that Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is to Mary Magdalene.  Luke’s story (23-24) has the same layout but simply says “the women who had followed him from Galilee” at most points.  He does tell us that the women who told the disciples about the empty tomb included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (and Joseph?), and Joanna.  Luke also mentions a short discussion Jesus has with the women who follow him weeping while he is led away to be executed.  However, this discussion really says nothing about the role of women.

John’s gospel is quite a bit different than Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the Synoptics) at many points but in the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection his account looks more like those of the Synoptics than is usual for him.  He also mentions women watching the crucifixion and tells us that Jesus even has a conversation with them, telling John that Mary (Jesus’ mother, who is one of the women) is now John’s mother presumably indicating that he should take care of her as an eldest son would in that culture.  John tells us that in addition to Mary, Jesus’ mother, that Jesus’ maternal aunt is present as is Mary the wife of Clopas (or perhaps Jesus’s aunt Mary, the wife of Clopas1) and Mary Magdalene.  Interestingly, it is entirely possible that Clopas is Cleopas from the road to Emmaus in Luke’s gospel2 which would make it probable that the other person on the road with him is his wife Mary.  John does not mention any women watching Jesus’ burial and mentions only Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb.  John does, however, flesh out the resurrection appearance to Mary that Mark mentions in passing3.

So, what’s so important about these women witnessing these events?  Well, John’s gospel places John himself at the cross but other than that the women are the closest of Jesus’ followers to actually see Jesus die.  Moreover, the Synoptics place them at the tomb as well.  They see Jesus’ death, they see Jesus’ burial, and they find the empty tomb.  If you read any Christian apologetics you’ll probably be familiar with people talking about these three facts as crucial evidence for Christianity.  Jesus is dead, Jesus is buried, and then suddenly he isn’t.  The women are the only ones who see all those parts.  In fact, without the information these women have, it’s unclear whether the disciples would even know which tomb to go find empty and why this should be startling.  Now, of course, the disciples are doubtful of the reports they receive from the women.  But, ultimately, it is the women who observe Jesus’ death, burial, and his empty tomb, it is the women who believe what they have seen (or been told by the angels), and it is the women who obey the angels who tell them to tell the disciples.

The resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene is also important.  It is the first resurrection appearance Jesus makes which is special – Mary Magdalene sees that Jesus has risen before anyone else.  It is also important because it is the final step: Mary Magdalene sees Jesus die and get buried, finds the tomb empty, and then sees him alive.  Of course, Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to five hundred people after he rises from the dead so Mary may not be the only person to witness all these pieces but the only other candidates are the other women.  There is also a certain tenderness in Jesus’ appearance to Mary, especially in the fact that he uses her name to alert her to his identity.

As I said at the beginning of this article, Christianity is a religion based first on the testimony of women  – women who, in their own day, would not have been considered reliable enough to testify in court.  Jesus, in allowing them to be his best witnesses for his largest miracle is doing them great honor.  Moreover, it is these women who serve as Jesus’ first evangelists to the men who go on to become Jesus’ best-known evangelists.  I’m sure someone has figured out how to set up a system in which women cannot hold any teaching authority in church without choking on this fact but it must have been an incredibly painful thing for them to swallow.


[1] This is probably a silly reason to suspect that Jesus’ aunt is a different person than Mary the wife of Clopas but if the family actually named two daughters Mary they were exceptionally uninventive even for a culture where it seems that every other woman is named Mary.

[2] Standardized spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon and is especially likely to be lacking if the name is actually Hebrew or Aramaic transliterated into Greek.  (For an example look at the two Greek transliterations of Jesus’ Aramaic cry from the cross in which the word “my God” is rendered “Eli” in Matthew and “Eloi” in Mark.)  Several authors claim to be able to tell you what Cleopas and Clopas mean but they do not agree and I am not entirely convinced that anyone is doing better than an educated guess.  If, in fact, Cleopas is an abbreviation of a Greek name as some claim while Clopas is a Hellenized Aramaic name then they are not the same people.  But, as I’ve said, the facts of the matter are unclear and even the existence of some of the supposed root-names are contested.

[3] Of course, Mark’s mention appears in a section of the gospel not present in some manuscripts so depending on what you think of the historicity of the end of Mark 16 (an issue I am not going to discuss here) it is possible that a later editor borrowed from John while adding an ending to Mark.

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